2011 Australia
2 weeks visiting Sydney, Uluru, Cairns and Melbourne
Last year at this time, I was immersed in planning a magical birthday trip to Disney World with my mom, scheduled for March 2011. It was going to be first class all the way, culiminating in a breakfast at the castle on my actual birthday. My excitement level was through the roof, especially because I haven't always had the best of birthdays. But then... life happened. One night just as I was about to book airplane tickets, my mom tearfully told me that she did not feel that she would be able to physically handle the trip. She encouraged me to carry on without her (using her credit card), but there is no way I'd enjoy a solo trip when it was originally designed to be shared with someone special. So she told me that she wanted to pay for me to travel somewhere else, wherever I chose.

Originally, I didn't want to go on any other trip. I was basically in mourning for the birthday trip that I wouldn't have. But, as my grief started to ebb, my inner travel bug started to itch. I'd been eyeing a trip to China and Tibet with the same group whose Kenya trip I'd taken in 2010. However, by the time my original trip was canceled, the Tibet trip was sold out- and no waitlist spaces ever opened up. Strike 2.

As I wondered if perhaps my birthday was cursed, somehow I was hit with a burst of inspiration. Australia! I'd long wanted to go there, but the airfare alone is so expensive. However, if my mom was to help, it could be manageable. And it would be a new continent for me to explore!

I was in my element as I scoured the internet for information that would help me decide on a possible itinerary. There are a ton of wonderful places that I'd love to see in Australia (and New Zealand), but I didn't want to cram too much into 2 weeks. Eventually, I decided to stick to Sydney, Uluru and Cairns: there would be plenty to keep me busy in these 3 classic Australian destinations. I wanted to see a musical if possible, but none of the offerings in Sydney during my dates were very appealing. So I decided to add a brief stop in Melbourne; this decision was helped by the fact that staying a day longer than planned and adding a Melbourne-Sydney flight would actually be cheaper than flying home on my original date. Even adding in the cost of the hotel, it was still less expensive.

I originally thought that Christmas/ New Years would be the most convenient time to travel, but the hotel and air prices at that time were ridiculous. So I settled for leaving the day after Thanksgiving which is also a holiday from my office. It seemed like I could get the best deal on airfare was by booking all my international and domestic flights at once on Qantas. This meant that I'd be taking a new Qantas route from Dallas to Sydney (they sorta keep a little quiet about the fact that the flight actually stops in Brisbane en route....) I've followed the news since the first Australia bound planes left Dallas in May and I've seen that the flight route has gone smoothly... if you consider "intentionally leaving passenger baggage back in Dallas" or "unscheduled stop in a random island" to be smooth. ;) Dallas to/from Australia is one of the longest flights that exists. Apparently they are stretching the limits of the 747 aircraft. (which explains the Brisbane stop; the plane couldn't make it the little bit further to Sydney in one run) Fun, fun fun. The flight 2 days before mine apparently stopped in New Caledonia for an hour, so who knows where I may end up!

One of the most exciting things for me about this trip is that I've planned some really diverse experiences. As usual, I am most interested in savoring the journey rather than checking off a list of "must see" sites. Having said that, I must admit that my inner tourist is dying to get up close and personal with koalas and kangaroos, to munch on some Tim Tams and to take a zillion photos of the famous Opera house.

This travel blog is dedicated to my mom, who has always supported my travels and who made this trip possible.
The skating competition at Cup of Russia was timed perfectly so that I could watch it online before leaving for the airport. Yay, Jeremy Abbot was awesome! By the time it was over, I was itching to get going.

I was very happy when my nieces decided to come along for the ride to the airport. In the car, J told me to take a lot of photos. I turned around to give her a look and said "Hello?!? This is me. Remember Disney...?" I don't think anyone has ever accused me of taking too few photos. ;)When we said our goodbyes, she also told me not to get in a plane crash. Umm, I'll try not to.

I had a Guys and Dolls moment as a man named Obadiah helped me check in. Why yes, I do know that my flight out of Dallas isn't on American! There was no line at all for security so I had tons of time to chill out. I ended up getting a couple asiago bagels at Au Bon Pain and some California rolls at a Japanese place as I walked around quite a bit. I admired the holiday decor and some artworks- the Lego liberty bell was particularly nifty.

Finally it was time for my flight to Dallas. I was 2 seats away from French Fry Lady- a woman who spread a whole large thing of fries across her lap and ate them as soon as she sat down. She was still eating them during takeoff. There was also a sandwich. I hoped we wouldn't encounter any turbulence because I really didn't want fries in my face. How does that conform with stowing all carry on stuff during takeoff, anyway?

As usual, I had a window seat. Gazing out, I saw the most incredible sunset... full of vivid oranges and pinks swirling against blue, with just enough clouds to add a floaty feeling. My camera was stowed but I don't think it could have fully have done it justice anyway. As the plane gained speed and tilted upwards, it felt like I was about to become one with the sunset. Except of course it still teased from a distance. That's a little what traveling is about... chasing sunsets... pursuing fleeting little moments of magic and beauty... which you can never really own but which will nonetheless stay with you forever.

I kept looking out at the sunset on the horizon, until finally it faded into black night. I had barely left home, and I already had a special memory. I felt the sunset had to be a good omen.

The flight got into Dallas about an hr early, which is crazy typical for me. I wandered around killing time and searching unsuccessfully for water that was not Aquafina brand. I happened upon a L'Occitane shop and treated myself to a set of hand lotion and lip balm. I killed more time going online

It was finally time to board the colorful Qantas plane that would take me to the land down under! When they announced that the door were closing and there still wasn't anyone sitting in the middle seat next to me, I was thrilled. This gave me a little room to stretch out; airplanes are one of the best places to be short.

After eating (and discovering that my iPad was missing some shows I'd bought... grrrr...), I was tired. The flight path said there were 13 hrs left; next time I looked, it said 9; and then it said 4. And then I got up and started writing my journal notes and listening to some music. I am very lucky I can sleep on planes at least a little. Oh, and I never did drink the bottle of Aquafina water I'd bought in Dallas because I couldn't open it; I can be epic fail sometimes. (since I don't much care for Aquafina, it wasn't a huge loss)

Lego Liberty Bell at PHL Sunset Takeoff
Because of the international date line, Saturday November 26, 2011 did not exist for me. My arrival in Australia will continue in the next entry...
The layover in Brisbane can best be described as "annoying". We had to deplane and go through security, but that was a breeze. I felt like I was in limbo because I was technically in Australia, but I hadn't been through customs and couldn't do anything. So I snapped a few photos at the airport and waited.

The flight to Sydney was very short. I was sure that I was on the wrong side to see anything interesting when we were landing... But then I saw a bunch of tall buildings.. and right near them was a bridge.. that must mean... Yes! There's the Opera House! After I dug out my camera, I wondered where the opera house went... But then the plane shifted slightly and it was there in all its glory.

After landing, I was held up in the galley waiting to deplane; that's really not a fun place to be waiting, especially if you are claustrophobic. Eventually we were set free. I was in Sydney! Customs was very quick, and then it took awhile for the luggage to come out.

Then the fun began as I tried to use an ATM without luck. I'd been trying to decide whether to take a taxi or mass transit. I decided to walk to the train station even though I'd just read that the tracks would be closed this weekend. Sure enough, they were closed... but there was a free shuttle bus to Central Station. Free sounded good to me, especially as I did not have any Aussie cash. So I went to the bus stop and one arrived right away. We were packed a bit like sardines but, hey, it was free. And I was on my way.

They'd told me that I could transfer to a train at Central Station, but apparently that was not true as it appeared the trains to Circular Quay were also not running. So I walked around, trying unsuccessfully to use every ATM I could find. Finally I went in some kind of tourist assistance place and the 2 young ladies there were very nice, although they could not solve my ATM issue. However, they directed me to the free 555 bus that went to Circular Quay. Wow, free transit all the way to my hotel!

The bus was packed, but it didn't take as long as I thought to get to my stop. From there, it was easy to find my hotel- sometimes, it's nice to stay at the boring chains because they are easily visible. ;) Tired out from all my travels and travails, I was thrilled that my room was ready.

Just as I'd asked for, I had a room on a high floor with a sweet view of the Opera House. After breathing a sigh of relief, I took a welcome shower and then perused the room service menu. They had my favorite travel staple, spaghetti bolognese, so I was set.

I didn't really want to do a whole lot right away, so I decided to stroll down to the Opera House where I took the requisite zillion photos. It's really awesome in person, and it was very peaceful when I walked around it. (I think most people were content to see it from the front)

Then I spent awhile meandering through the adjacent Botanic Gardens. This walk was also quite peaceful, and the views were stunning. The weather was a bit warm, but I enjoy summer weather so it's all good. Apparently it had been raining for the past few days so I lucked out.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped at a nearby supermarket for some sodas and Tim Tams. I should have been suspicious when there were no prices anywhere... It turned out to be a lot more than I'd expected to pay, but oh well. I've learned a lesson. But at least the Tim Tams were yummy.

I figured that since I was staying at a kinda swanky hotel, I could ask the concierge for help regarding what to do about my ATM woes. Unfortunately, he didn't have much advice other than to call my bank and maybe have them FedEx me a new card.

At this point, I was just feeling worn out emotionally, though not quite physically tired. So I decided to chill in my hotel room and go over travel blogs and photos. I wasn't in the mood for the technical issues I ended up facing, but I got them all solved.

Hopefully I can sleep til a decent hour tomorrow. I don't have anything specific planned, so I'll see what I am in the mood for.
Landing in Sydney- couldn't ask for a better view! Posing in front of the Harbour Bridge Approaching the famous (& photogenic) Opera House Sydney Opera House detail Sydney Opera House Royal Botanic Gardens: Wurrungwuri sculpture, looking toward Circular Quay Royal Botanic Gardens View from my hotel room at dusk
As I glanced at the clock beside my bed, I awoke with a start! Zomg, I'd really slept a long time... It was nearly 11:30! Then I opened my iPad and saw that it said it was only 6am; I'd been looking at the date not the time. Who puts a date on a hotel alarm clock?!? Anyway, it felt more like 6am than nearly noon. I went back to sleep for a bit, though I was disturbed by the clicking of the thermostat. (I later asked guest services to check the thermostat; since it hasn't made any annoying noises since then, I guess they fixed it)

I took my time getting up and getting ready to face the world for my first morning in Australia. My mom had emailed me her credit card pin, so my first stop was an ATM. Can I just say that it feels tremendously better to have some local cash in your wallet when you are in a foreign country?

Second order of business was to get a mini sim card for my iPad. That was simple, though it took until later that day for it to be activated.

The Telstra store I'd stopped in for my mini sim card was near Hyde Park so I decided to take a stroll; I had my big dslr with me so I was planning some serious photography for the day. Hyde Park was nice, although not very thrilling.

Eventually, I decided to head in the direction of Darling Harbour, which was easy to find since I could follow the monorail track. On the way, I admired the Christmas windows in a local department store. I've been taking photos of all the Christmas decorations I see, especially trees. I have no particular affinity for Christmas, but I like colorful, festive adornments in general.

Speaking of Christmas... As I neared Darling Harbour, I discovered it was decorated with a Santa Fest theme. This basically meant there were giant inflatable santas all over; I particularly liked the koala in a santa suit. Good cheesy fun!

As I was enjoying a pleasant walk around the Harbour area, I saw a sign for the Chinese Friendship Garden which I'd been interested in seeing. I'm really glad I stumbled across that sign, because the garden was a lovely and tranquil place to spend some time. Definitely well worth the small admission fee. I was very thirsty so I was glad when I found a place inside where I could buy a bottled water; somehow that was the only place I missed in my initial walk around the garden. (yay for having cash so I could buy a water!)

I continued my walk around the Harbour and found another place I was looking for... somewhere that offered direct ferry transport to the Taronga zoo. There was a ferry scheduled to leave shortly so I purchased a ticket and then lingered a bit.

Upon arrival at the zoo, there is an option to take a cable car to the top; the zoo is built on a hill overlooking Sydney Harbour. I decided that braving the cable car would be a better option than walking uphill. I'm proud of myself for not totally freaking out during the ride, but I can't say I enjoyed it.

Soon after I arrived triumphantly (or not) at the top of the cable car, I took a detour for lunch since I was starving. I had some kind of ham and Brie sandwich which was quite good as well as a coke zero.

The zoo itself is wonderful... although that is more because of the dramatic landscaping/ view than anything else. Obviously, I was most interested in seeing wildlife native to Australia, and I was full of glee when I saw my first koalas. Koalas! In Australia!

I saw kangaroos in 2 places, but they were all lazing around and couldn't be arsed to jump around or do anything interesting. ;) (the koalas weren't active either- but koalas don't need to be active, just cute)

I found myself rather uninterested in animals that I'd seen on safari last year; while I was trying to catch sight of the elephants, I thought to myself "Pffft, I've seen way more interesting elephants roaming free in Kenya" and walked away. I didn't even bother tracking down some of the other African animals; I saw a lion but was again unimpressed.

The notable exception were the giraffes. Like their Kenyan cousins, these giraffes loved to strike a pose. Plus, the giraffe exhibit has an awesome view of Sydney Harbour in the background. Still not as cool as seeing giraffes necking in Kenya, but nonetheless very nice.

Other memorable animal sightings were a Tasmanian devil, emus, lemurs, and a random turkey that was walking around the kids' trail right in front of me. I am sure that turkey was glad to be in Australia at this time of year and not America. ;). There was also a really cute sea lion that you could see from the gift shop near the zoo exit; it seemed like a little ham, looking out at all the people and wanting to be watched.

Animals who dissed me include platypus and red panda; I'd really wanted to see both of them but none could be found. I would also have liked to have seen the baby tigers that were born this August, but they are only out for limited hours which didn't correspond to my visit.

When I got back to Circular Quay via ferry, I decided to take a little walk around the Rocks area. The Rocks is a quaint area that sits right by the Harbour Bridge. In the course of my random wanderings, I stumbled into a gift shop and fell in love with a pair of earrings that we're hand painted by an Australian artist. Yay, my quest for earrings was fulfilled! (I always like to get earrings as a travel souvenir) The lady who sold them to me was very friendly; in general, people here seem to be quite pleasant.

I was feeling a little worn out by the time I got back to the hotel so I decided to order room service for dinner. This time I enjoyed the fettuccine carbonara.

After dinner, I decided that even though I was tired, it would be nice to take a walk to the opera house to enjoy the last traces of daylight as the sun set. It wasn't very crowded at the end of the opera house, so it was quite a serene way to say goodbye to a wonderful day.

When I had just finished sorting through the day's photos back at the hotel, I got an email from the place where I'd booked a blue mountains tour for Wednesday saying that they had to cancel because no one else booked. Wtf?!? If I had wanted to cancel, I would have had to have given them 48 hrs notice; they gave me less than 36. After my 3rd email where I (nicely) mentioned that I wish they'd given me more notice that they might have to cancel so that I wouldn't be left trying to figure out what to do, they at least sent me a list of a few other companies who offer similar tours. So instead of writing my blog, I had to scramble to research these other companies. I was not amused.

By the time I settled on another company, I was exhausted so I went to sleep. I'd had a fabulous day- and had particularly enjoyed the feeling of discovery as I wandered through Sydney in the morning; it's a shame that it had to end on a bit of a sour note.
Hyde Park Sydney monorail Inflatable Koala atop Wild Life Sydney Chinese Garden of Friendship Chinese Garden of Friendship Taronga Zoo koala Taronga Zoo giraffes- note the backdrop of Sydney The Rocks: Christmas decoration
The wakeup calls at this hotel are hard core. The first time the phone rang, there didn't seem to be anyone on the other end. Then it rang again; once I said something, I heard a recording which also mentioned that I could hit any key for another call in 10 minutes. Since I'd been awake for a little bit before the 1st wakeup call, I declined. Then I received a personalized follow up call aka call #3. Impressive.

I was excited about my first stop of the day: a Sydney photography tour. After finding the designated meeting spot in the Rocks, I met our instructor Alfonso as well as the others on the tour: 2 women from Australia and a woman from Alabama. Throughout our 3 hours together, Alfonso would give us some pointers and answer questions; he also talked a little about the history of the Rocks area, although that was not the focus of the tour.

Several times, he would give us a challenge and have us walk around for 10 minutes and then share the best photos we took; the challenge topics included line, texture and shape. Other times, we would take turns practicing a technique he showed us.

Most of the information presented was not new to me, since I've read a bit about photography theory. And yet, I still felt that I gained a lot. Photography is a huge challenge for me and I usually feel like a total novice; if nothing else, the tour assured me that I at least was on the right track. I also think that the more you practice the basic techniques and the more you really think about photography, the better you will become.

Plus, it was a lot of fun to be around people who shared my passion for photography and to feel immersed in a creative environment. Alfonso was great- very down to earth and friendly as well as an enthusiastic teacher. As I'd mentioned before, the Rocks is a lovely area and it really lent itself well to a photography workshop. I wish I could attend one of his more advanced classes but they are only offered 1 Saturday a month.

After the tour, I lingered and took some more photos around the Rocks. I decided to eat lunch at a place called Pancakes on the Rocks and ordered a sensible vacation meal of chocolate pancakes with ice cream and chocolate sauce. Yummy!

I stopped back at the hotel briefly and confirmed my 2nd choice tour for the Blue Mountains. It was nice having an iPad because I'd been able to check my email and thus find out that they wanted me to call in my credit card. I was very relieved when they'd said they could accommodate me.

Later in the afternoon, I decided to take a ferry to Manly Beach. An enthusiastic traveler, I claimed a seat in the front of the top deck of the ferry. When the ferry pulled out into the Harbour, it got a little windy, but I told myself that this was living... sitting on a ferry in Sydney Harbour and feeling the wind in my face! But then it got to be a lot of wind... so much so that my scrunchie was useless at keeping my hair out of my face... no matter, this was a once in a lifetime experience! Then I felt some water... and made the executive decision that I could best enjoy my once in a lifetime ride from a seat inside.

It was a little overcast at Manly, but I spent an hour and a half wandering around. Although I did not go on the beach (because I am really not a beach person), I relished the smell of the fresh salty sea air and the sight of cascades of waves hitting the shore. The beach itself wasn't very crowded, but there were surfers hitting the waves, and even someone flying a colorful kite type thing from a surfboard type thing. The town itself also had some cute looking buildings. In all, it was a nice little excursion.

On the ferry back to Sydney, I used my trusty iPad to check the hours for the closest Lush Cosmetics store and was pleased to discover that I should be able to make it there before it closed. Ever since I went to my very first Lush store in Budapest, I have tried to visit Lush stores during my travels. I purchased a few of their holiday soaps to bring home with me; the prices seemed similar to US prices. The lady at the shop was very friendly and asked me where I'd been. I was actually a little taken aback because I can't really imagine someone in an US store asking a tourist about their day.

It was getting to be dinner time. I remembered that the bus to Circular Quay had passed a Wagamama restaurant and thought that might be a good spot for dinner; I've eaten at Wagamama locations during travels to London and have always enjoyed my meals. I didn't even have to check my iPad as I was able to find it from memory. Yay! First I ordered a fruit punch from the spring seasonal menu, and it was wonderfully refreshing. It was hard to decide on a main course but I finally chose the salmon teriyaki and it was terrific. Excellent choice for a meal.

I went back to the hotel and took a relaxing bath using a Lush bath bomb that I'd brought with me from home. Ahhhh!

Then the phone rang.. It was Blue Mountains tour #2. Yup, they were canceling; they said that the other people who had booked had canceled. However, unlike company #1, they found me an alternate tour (#3) and reserved a spot for me; they said tour #3 would honor the price I'd been quoted for #2 even though they were more expensive. At that point, I didn't care so much what tour #3 was like, except that they would be going to the places I most wanted to see. The forecast is for rain so it may be a crap day, anyway. But I was happy with the service of company #2.

If company #3 cancels or doesn't show, I will just screw it all and go see the Harry Potter exhibit at the Powerhouse museum since I'd missed it in NY.

I spent the balance of the night working on photos and blogs. Can't believe tomorrow will be my last day in Sydney already!
The Rocks: Sydney Photography Tour The Rocks: Sydney Photography Tour The Rocks: Sydney Photography Tour From when we were practicing portraits during the photography tour Season's Greeting flags decorate Manly Beach Manly Beach volleyball Manly Beach Back in Circular Quay
Today was the day designated for touring the Blue Mountains. If you recall, I had 2 companies cancel on me... I wasn't entirely confident that tour #3 would materialize. Especially since I hadn't had any direct contact with that company.

I only received 1wake up call today- I guess they were slacking. I got myself together, preparing for the forecasted rain, and waited in front of the hotel. Was I waiting for nothing? Nope, about 5 minutes after the scheduled time, a vehicle stopped and it was for me. Yay!

Turns out that some people had canceled from that tour- perhaps due to the weather forecast?- and there were only 2 other people: a young woman who'd been studying abroad in Perth and her mom. They were both from NJ, and were very pleasant company for the day. We left Sydney by taking the Harbour Bridge which was pretty cool.

Every tour to the Blue Mountains that I found had a stop scheduled for Scenic World, which sounds very touristy. Scenic World features cable car type rides, which you generally have to pay extra for since they are not included in the tour prices. The cable car across the valley apparently has a floor that opens to become transparent during the ride. I'm sure I'd love that... NOT! So I'd either have to pay extra to be scared shitless or stay behind and fool around on my iPad or something. I wasn't sure which option I'd choose. Well, our guide mentioned that he thought it might be a good idea to skip it because there were extra crowds due to a cable car not working. I was all for that idea, and the other 2 passengers also agreed! Yay, no scary rides!

Our first stop was Featherdale National Park, which I was most eager to see. I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint. In terms of animal experiences, it really kicked the Taronga Zoo's butt. ;). I practically squealed with glee when I walked in and saw a wallaby hopping around. That's right, it wasn't just lounging around. Kangaroos and wallabies are way cute when they are hopping around.

Then there were the koalas- you could get right up close with one. So soft and adorable! I was totally excited to have my photo taken with one, and I was very pleased with how well said photo turned out.

The next section had various sized kangaroos hopping around all over the place! You could pay $1 to feed them... but remembering how deer had attacked me in a not fun way when I fed them in Nara, Japan many years ago, I passed. Poor kangaroos... they kept looking at me like "ok, human... where's the food?" I was able to get my photo taken with some kangaroos though it wasn't easy because they weren't so good at keeping still.

There were a lot of other animals to see, including an albino kangaroo, and some little penguins. We even saw a couple little joeys coming out of their mama kangaroos' pouches. As I walked down one path, my jaw practically dropped as I couldn't help exclaiming out loud "Well, look at you!". I was talking to an albino peacock, who had its feathers extended, right smack in the path in front of me. Just... wow.. so elegant.

We had an hour at the park, which seemed like just the right amount of time. Our next stop was a gas station while our guide refilled the tank. ;) I stayed in the vehicle and took advantage of the lack of movement to post my koala photo to Facebook.

Our real next stop was for a short walk to get up close to nature. That would probably have been more interesting if we hadn't already driven the length of the path we were walking. Still, it made for some nice photos and it felt good to get outside and stretch my legs. Our tour guide showed us a didgeridoo before we got back into our vehicle.

Then we headed toward the Tomah Botanic Gardens atop the blue mountains for a scenic lunch. I chose a kind of fish I'd never even heard of before, and it was quite tasty. We enjoyed our conversation a little too much so we only had 15 minutes after lunch to wander outside. I tried to make the most of the time as I walked down stairs and walkways, taking photos of anything interesting. That was all well and good... but it meant that I had to practically race uphill/ upstairs to make it back; that part wasn't so fun.

We drove around a bit and stopped at a spot overlooking a dramatic water fall. It was lovely, though the wind was blowing and I was glad I'd brought a jacket with me. We only had a couple minutes to walk around before we drove to Echo Point to look at the famous rock formation of the Three Sisters. Our guide of course told us the story behind it. At this stop, it was extremely windy! We had about 30 minutes; more time might have been nice, although the wind was rather brutal.

And.. that was really about it. I guess I'd expected at least a few more photo stops. We drove through the quaint town of Leura, and I thought with a sigh that some of the other tours actually stop there. (although they don't stop at the botanic gardens). On the way back, the guide played us some aboriginal dreamtime stories which would have been more interesting if I could have focused on them; I think battling the wind knocked me out a bit and I took a bit of a nap.

We were supposed to drive around Sydney Olympic Park but apparently it was closed off for an upcoming event. Our guide let us off at a ferry stop and we took a relaxing ride back to the city (ferry price not included in this tour, though it was in the others I'd booked)

I have mixed feelings about our guide. He definitely knew what he was talking about, but at times his spiel seemed a little mechanical, which I wouldn't expect in such a small group. He also repeated himself a bit. All in all, I did enjoy my day so I guess that it was a success. And no rain!

Once I got back to Circular Quay, I checked my ATM card and it still wasn't working. I wasn't surprised, though my mom had said the bank was going to put something through to get it to work. They've never had to do that before, so I really think it is something with the card itself.

I'd checked in for my flight on the ride back to Sydney (yay, iPad) so I stopped by my hotel front desk to print the boarding pass. I also had them book me a cab to the airport; I'll be leaving during rush hour so I think it's better not to fight the crowds on the train.

I was in a lazy mood, so I stayed in my hotel room working on blogs and photos. Eventually, I ordered some spaghetti bolognese from room service. As I was packing, I heard a loud noise. Huh? It finally occurred to me to look out the window. Fireworks! Over the Opera House! By the time I got out my camera, they were done; it was a very brief display. I decided that Sydney wanted to celebrate my last night in town. ;) The Opera House seemed to be lit up with a few rotating designs and I did manage to capture those on film, thanks partly to being able to use a bible on the windowsill as an impromptu tripod substitute.
Featherdale Wildlife Park: Posing with a koala Featherdale Wildlife Park: wallaby and baby Featherdale Wildlife Park: petting a kangaroo Featherdale Wildlife Park: little penguin Featherdale Wildlife Park: peacock Featherdale Wildlife Park: albino peacock Mt Tomah Botanical Gardens Govetts Leap lookout Govetts Leap lookout Three Sisters rock formation Near Queen Elisabeth lookout Sydney Opera House illuminated red for World AIDS day
Today's wakeup call arrangement was an automated call followed by a personal follow up. As I packed up, I was a bit sad to be leaving the Marriott and its comfy bed, but I was also excited to be headed to Uluru.

By the time I got downstairs, my cab was already waiting for me. The ride to the airport was both slightly quicker and slightly cheaper than I'd expected. I already had a boarding pass so I just needed to print my luggage tags at the self check-in kiosk. Security was a total breeze. Once I realized that liquids weren't prohibited through security, I regretted leaving most of my perfectly good bottled water back at the hotel.

I searched around for breakfast options and ended up ordering something called a breakfast burger: bacon, egg, and cheese on a bun. It also came with fries, but I didn't find the idea of eating fries at 8am to be very appealing.

Not much to see around the airport terminal, although I took the requisite photo of a Christmas tree. I wondered why the Sydney airport should have a NY metropolitan museum of art store, and then sat at the gate to await boarding.

The best part of my flight was that I was able to watch The Amazing Race on my iPad; the worst part was that one of my favorite teams was eliminated. ;). I was way excited to catch site of Uluru as the plane landed! I also marveled that the desert was greener than I'd expected. Uluru airport is tiny, just 1 runway and a little building. Their idea of baggage claim was to put all the baggage on the carts and just wheel those to the front of the building. (although I did see bag carousels).

When visiting the Uluru area, perhaps the biggest decision you have to make is whether you want to rent a car. There is no real public transit, and tours can be expensive. The roads aren't crowded at all and many (most?) people recommend renting a car. However, since I was alone and wasn't too keen about driving on the "wrong" side of the road, I decided not to rent a car. There was a free shuttle bus to the hotel area (all the hotels are in the same complex and are owned by the same company) and that was very quick and easy.

After dropping my bags in the colorful little hotel room, my first stop was the tour center in the little shopping area adjacent to my hotel. Unfortunately, the aboriginal tours were still not available- apparently the tour guides have been on strike. So I booked some other options for that afternoon and the next morning. Once that was done, I went to Gecko's Cafe for some lunch... I ordered my usual, spaghetti bolognese. After lunch, I bought some water and food at the supermarket.

My first tour was a sunset and Uluru tour, offered by a small group tour operator. As soon as the guide greeted me, I thought he was terrific. He was very enthusiastic and personable, and he gave us many opportunities to take photos. I was joined on the tour by just 4 other people: an older couple from Florida who were a lot of fun, and a mother/ grown son from Maryland. We learned later that the Maryland woman was the largest collector of lladro figurines, which I guess is kinda neat; apparently her house is a museum. Her son distinguished himself quickly by the constant beep/clicking sound behind me... I think I take a huge ton of photos, but this guy seemed to take 5 to 10 for every one I took! I sometimes wondered if he ever looked up from the camera.

Uluru is really amazing up close, in a way that cannot possibly be conveyed by photos, no matter how many you take. It really does have a kind of presence surrounding it. Our guide showed us a few places, including a watering hole and a place with hieroglyphic type art on the walls, and also told us some of the aboriginal stories. He also told us that because it had recently had uncharacteristic rainfall, the entire area was more green than usual. I really loved the tour, and Uluru itself.

As the sun was going down, we went to a viewing area to enjoy the sunset. I was the only one who climbed to the overlook atop the dunes; the rest stayed near the vehicle. After the sun was down and I'd taken my fill of photos, I rejoined everyone else as we chatted over refreshments. The tour guide had champagne and orange juice and I decided on a combination of the 2. He also had bread which we could dip in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and something with a texture. It was all delicious and a great way to end my first night in Uluru.

Once I got back to the hotel room, the little alcohol knocked me out so I went right to sleep; this was good because I had to get up very early the next day.
Uluru Uluru Kapi Mutitjulu Kulpi Mutitjulu (family cave) Uluru sunset Uluru and Kata Tjuta sunset
As my alarm went off at 4am, I'd like to say that I jumped up eager to begin a new day. But... not so much. The 4:10 wakeup call got me out of bed by necessity since the only phone was across the room. Before leaving, I ate a roll with nutella spread- there was no knife in the room so I improvised and used a spoon to spread it.

My morning destination was the Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta (which I learned was pronounced like ka-ta-jew-ta), another rock formation. I had booked with Uluru Express which basically is a shuttle bus company that will drop people off at designated locations for independent exploration. The only other person aboard was an older gentleman from Switzerland.

We stopped first at a lookout to enjoy a lovely sunrise over Kata Tjuta. After a brief bathroom stop and another stop to look at a camel on the side of the road, the guide let us loose at about 6am to begin the walk. He said he'd be back at 9:45 which would give us more than enough time to do the walk. The older gentleman walked off ahead and I was on my own; as soon as I'd seen him I somehow knew he would kick my butt with his hiking prowess..

As I walked to the first lookout, I really experienced the "wind" part of the walk; I felt like each step was bit of a battle. However, the wind probably made things easier since it was never as hot as it's supposed to be this time of year. The weather was actually quite pleasant; there weren't even the hordes of bugs about which I'd read horror stories. There were bugs, but they weren't overwhelming.

I'd read some mixed reports about how challenging the hike was. For someone like me who, umm, had never really hiked and who has short little legs, it was a bit of a challenge- mostly on the up and down hill sections. So when I encountered some tour groups, I let them pass me. This meant that I could enjoy a peaceful, quiet walk at my own pace while admiring the dramatic scenery. But it also made me feel slightly uneasy because there would be no one around if Something went wrong. I tried to focus on the positive as I soldiered on, trying to take in all of the amazing sights that surrounded me.

At one point, I wasn't exactly sure which way the path went, so I took my best guess and veered to the right. This led me to an area of rock that was wet. And that led me... to skid backwards and slide down so that I ended up flat against the angled ground. Miraculously, my camera (which had been around my neck) was unharmed; I was only bruised a tiny bit. I was more mentally shaken than anything. After tucking my camera safely into the camera bag in my backpack and taking a few moments to sort myself out, I backtracked a bit and tried to see if I'd missed the path. I still thought it went to the right so again I gingerly tried to cross the wet rocks...and again I slid. down. down. down. This time I eventually struggled to make it across... but then it seemed like the path ended.

I was so confused, and yet at the same time I was also somewhat amused by the fact that I could manage to get lost amid a well known hiking path. I didn't want to give up, especially because I had so much time til the bus came back and this was probably my one and only chance to take the walk. But I certainly didn't want to continue on if I felt unsafe or even unsure! So, grudgingly, I started to turn around.

Then I saw someone else walking up the path. After we exchanged polite greetings, I asked him bluntly if he knew where he was going. ;) Turns out he was a very nice young man from Germany named Stefan (which I could easily remember because it was the same first name as a Swiss figure skater, lol) After I told him what had happened, he invited me to join him. I am SO thankful I ran into Stefan and didn't have to turn back; my spirits were definitely lifted.

Of course it turned out that the slippery rocks were the wrong path. I can be such a goof! The correct path to the 2nd lookout was quite a steep climb, but I managed it. Stefan kept looking back to make sure I was ok. Thank goodness I look young for my age so I didn't feel like he was looking at me like he was doing a good deed by helping an older woman. (I'd guess he was about 10 yrs younger than me)

The 2nd lookout was amazing. By the time we got there, we met up with the Swiss man from my bus who apparently had taken the clockwise path (we were going the recommended counterclockwise) Yep, he was totally kicking my butt all right! He was almost done, and I still had a lot to go. He said he'd seen some kangaroos along the trail, but we never saw them.

After the descent from the 2nd lookout, the path wasn't overly challenging and I took my good dslr camera back out and kept it around my neck again. It was a very pleasant walk, although I was definitely getting tired by the end, particularly when we had to go up and down the path to the first lookout. By then, I realized there was no way I was going to make it back by the "plenty of time" 9:45 pickup. But I didn't try to rush it because safety was more important.

I think I was only about 15 minutes late but when I finally got back, the guide admitted they were a bit worried about me. Oops. I said goodbye and thanks to Stefan, my tall dark sweet companion, then rode back in silence as the Swiss man and the driver were apparently engaged in conversation. There were no bathrooms on the walk, and after all the water I'd imbibed, I barely made it through the slightly bumpy ride back to the hotel.

Kata Tjuta was quite an amazing site, and the walk was definitely rewarding. Since Kata Tjuta is made up of many domed rocks, it was interesting to see all the various angles that were formed as I walked among them. I wish I had time to do the other (easier) walk at Kata Tjuta, but it would have been too much for me to fit it into this trip. If I ever get back here, I doubt I'd do the Valley of the Winds walk again, but I am definitely glad I got to experience it once.

Upon arrival in my hotel room, I washed my clothes in the sink since they'd gotten dirty during my tumbles, and ate some more rolls with nutella. Finally, I took a well needed nap. I decided not to push myself any more that day, so I lingered around the hotel... visiting the shops, checking in for my next flight, and working on my blogs.

My evening was spent at the Sounds of Silence dinner. When I was planning my trip, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do this dinner: it is rather expensive, I am not a big eater or a foodie, and I thought it sounded rather touristy. However, I had read some great reviews and I thought it was something I should at least try. I am very glad I did.

At 6:30pm, I boarded a bus to a location seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a view of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. A young man playing didgeridoo added a sonorous atmosphere that nicely complemented the view. Champagne or wine flowed freely, but I chose to stick with a diet coke. Since I hadn't had a proper lunch, I was eager to try the appetizers; I probably would have enjoyed cardboard but these were truly terrific offerings.. I started with the smoked salmon, a safe choice. Then I ventured to sample the kangaroo. And finally, I heard rumblings praising the crocodile puffs so I tried those as well. All were so yummy that I gobbled as much as I could without monopolizing the trays that came out. I also enjoyed a piece of vegetarian sushi, but I only saw them carrying that tray around once.

We were supposed to be enjoying the sunset, but it was cloudy and there wasn't much sun to set. Still, it was a lovely view. I was glad I'd brought my biggest zoom lens as the rocks were a bit far from our viewing area.

Eventually, we were told to go down a path where we found tables set up for dinner. Slightly in front of me were a group of women who seemed like a lot of fun. When it was myturn to be seated, the host was hesitating and it appeared that he was trying to figure outat which table to put me. I felt like Harry Potter encountering the Sorting Hat as I wishedto be sent to the table with the women I'd seen in front of me. And... yes! I was sorted into Griffyndor... err, seated at the table I wanted. ;)

It really proved to be a marvelous table, which I am sure enhanced my experience. Next to me were a couple from England. On my other side, there was a woman from Hungary who came to Australia in March to study English and her sister who had just come to join her for some travels. There were also a mother and grown daughter from Australia. Finally, there was a woman from Seattle who I found out runs a website geared to female travelers. We all shared various stories of our work and travel, and laughed a lot. My story about the Valley of the Winds slip-and-slide was a big hit. ;). Everyone seemed to share my passion for travel and for learning about different cultures so I was in my element and I participated fully in various discussions.

Since we were in the middle of a desert, we were also joined by various bugs, who were mostly crawling around the light at the center of the table. They weren't really a bother, except when they kept going in the water glass of the woman next to me.

Dinner started with a bowl of delicious pumpkin soup. Then we were called up to a buffet, one table at a time- I sampled the crocodile caesar salad, some kind of sausage, barrimundy fish, jasmine rice, kangaroo parts, and potatoes. The kangaroo seemed a little tough so I didn't really eat it, but the rest was good and I had enough to satisfy me. Later, there was a dessert buffet which I only picked at.

After we were done eating, they turned off the lights at the tables and asked us to be quiet so we could truly experience the sounds of silence for which the experience was named. Then they brought out an astronomer to talk about the stars. I'd been wondering what he'd say since it was so cloudy that we could only really see 1 star (which actually turned out to be the planet Jupiter) He started off by announcing that he was the shepherd of the stars, but that his flock was being naughty. LOL He was as good a speaker as people had said, even though there wasn't much to see in the sky this particular night. I can only imagine how magical it must be on a night where the stars are shining.

He ended this evening with a story about when night truly ends and turns into day. This story said that this moment occurs when people from all over the world sit and eat together, and realize they are all looking up at the same sky. Or something like that. It was quite a lovely sentiment, and one that very well fit in with the sentiments expressed by everyone at my table.
Kata Tjuta sunrise Uluru sunrise Valley of the Winds walk Valley of the Winds walk Valley of the Winds walk: I made it to the 2nd lookout! Valley of the Winds walk Valley of the Winds walk Valley of the Winds walk Sounds of Silence dinner: didgeridoo player Sounds of Silence dinner: my table
All too soon 4am came and I was jolted awake by the alarm clock and phone. I was going for another sunrise walk, thus time to Uluru. Just as the sun didn't do much setting last night, it didn't do much rising today. There still seemed to be something special about viewing the rock at dawn, even from a crowded viewing area when the sun was hiding. Or maybe I just wanted to convince myself of that.

I would have liked to have done the full base walk around Uluru, but I it was doubtful that I'd be able to get back to the hotel by checkout time, especially because of the limited schedule of the Uluru Express buses. So I walked around the rock a little and then eventually headed on the Liru walk to the cul justtural center. The cultural center was underwhelming, but maybe that's partly because it was so early.

I took the 8am bus back to the hotel; It was raining on the ride back so I was glad I hadn't stayed out longer. I had plenty of time to shower and pack before checkout. I also sorted out my various tour reservations for my next stop, Cairns. After checking out, I walked around the shopping area a bit and saw some random camels; It appeared like they were having some kind of happening since all the stores had displays outside, too. I was tired so eventually I decided to just sit in the hotel lobby to wait for the airport shuttle bus. While waiting, I reviewed my photos and blog entries.

Part of me wishes that I had more time to take advantage of the walks I missed. But travel to Uluru is also a bit frustrating, especially without a car. There just aren't many options other than exploring the rock- and that isn't always feasible due to weather, schedules, etc.

My hotel was better than I'd expected. I'd read some less than stellar reviews about the hotels in the complex, and I will admit that they are expensive for what you get. Also, it was a bit... odd... that the only windows were in the toilet and shower rooms. But the room was comfortable, I slept well, and it had a purple blanket. :) Like in Sydney, everyone in the tourist industry in Uluru were wonderful.

Checking in at the teeny tiny airport was a breeze which left me with quite a wait. Thank goodness for my iPad so I could research some things in Cairns. I wished that there had been an earlier flight I could have taken because I felt like I waswasting valuable time. On the other hand, it probably served me well to have some down time.

The plane to Cairns was very empty. I still can't get over the fact that foreign airlines still provide hot meals for short flights. Actually, we had both a small bag of pretzels and a meal tray. Luxury. ;). Other than that, the flight was rather uneventful, although it was nice that I had 3 seats to myself.

When I walked through Cairns airport on my way to baggage claim, I felt relieved to be back in a place that wasn't run by a single company. Choices! Variety! Freedom! Whee

I decided to take a cab to my hotel. I was surprised that none were waiting, but they trickled in and the line didn't take very long at all. I had quie a laugh when I realized that I'd confused my poor cab driver by requesting to be driven to "Inn Cairns"; it took a bit to realize that he had heard me say I wanted to go "in Cairns" LOL The funniest thing was that when I got to my hotel, another cab pulled in behind mine- and out jumped the people who had been in line right behind me at the airport! Since I was staying at a small place, that was way freaky.

My room in Cairns was actually an apartment and it felt huge! There was a bedroom, a bathroom (with washer/ dryer), kitchen and sitting area. I'd requested a high floor and something quiet and that is what I got. I was initially concerned about the bird chirping noises out front, but once I went into the bedroom, it was nice and peaceful- especially when I shut the door. Also, I felt more comfortable- and less hot- once I figured out that I actually needed to hit a button to turn on the A/C. It was quite warm and humid in Cairns so good A/C is a must.

I had just enough time for a quick walk through Cairns before it got dark. I discovered that Cairns is a bit of a tacky little shore town... but that suited me just fine. There is a nice esplanade area with a public pool, but no real beach; I am not a beach person so this didin't concern me. A lot of people recommend staying in nearby Port Douglas because it is supposedly nicer; I'd be able to judge for myself later but I felt quite comfortable in Cairns.

Across the street from my hotel, there was a Woolworths grocery store so I headed there to buy some food... including some of the snacks that were recommended by my online message board. After eating some dinner and working on my blog/photos, I was ready to go to sleep. It was not the most eventful day, but not every day of travel can be thrilling- especially the days when one is moving between 2 cities.
Uluru at sunrise Uluru Uluru Camels by my hotel
Waking up at 6:30am felt luxuriously lazy after 2 straight days of getting up around 4am. ;)

Today's plan was a small group tour of the Atherton Tablelands; every time I take a tour, I always have a slight worry that the bus won't show up and am always very relieved when it gets there. This time, my tour was guided by Captain Matty who is quite the character with dreadlocks and a long beard; he literally lived up to the name of his company,"Barefoot Tours". His little bus was decorated inside with lots of flowers and stuff- very cute, in a kinda hippy way. Whenever he picked someone up for the tour, he would give them a big hug before escorting them onto the bus.

I'd been a little hesitant about booking this tour because the pictures and descriptions I'd seen online made it seem like it was really geared to young backpackers. And admittedly, there were plenty of them amongst our little group. But there were also 2 couples older than me- one from Israel who didn't seem to have the strongest grasp of English. I tried to think of something in hebrew to say to them but I was epic fail at that. Our tour was quite diverse as it also included people from Sweden, Austria, Denmark and South Africa.

To give you and idea of what the tour is like, these are the questions the Captain had us answer in turn as sort of an ice breaker:
  1. Name
  2. Where you're from
  3. How long will you be in Cairns?
  4. Marital status
  5. Do you fold or scrunch your toilet paper?
Basically, you have to be kinda young at heart and have a sense of humor to enjoy this tour. Captain Matty knows his stuff, but keeps the mood light... if a bit raunchy at times.

Our first stop was to take a short walk to the impressive Canopy Fig Tree. From there, we headed to beautiful Lake Eachum, where we had the option to swim. I figured it was my only chance to swim in such a lake so I took a quick dip once I'd taken my quota of photos. It was quite deep and I ended up panicking after only swimming a tiny bit. After getting out, someone pointed out that I had a leech on my foot. Eww! City girl that I am, I tried to just shake it off before reluctantly resorting to picking it off with my hands. Yuk! Of course, I was bleeding- so I stuffed a tissue in my sandals. While we were enjoying the lake, Matty was setting up a morning snack of tea/coffee/hot chocolate and some fruits and stuff.

Next stop was a crater which Matty said would be so amazing that it might inspire us to write poetry, hug a tree, or burn our bras. LOL! Well I can't say it was quite that awe inspiring, butit was definitely way cool. After there, it was just a short walk to our 2nd picturesque water of the day, Dinner Falls. While many people had hesitated about getting wet on our first stop, everyone enjoyed a dip in the falls here. The best part was when I sat on some rocks right in the waterfall. However, I wasn't adventurous enough to jump off a rock for Matty to snap an action photo.

As we were getting ready to leave, we ran into 3 young Japanese women who were walking down the path to view the falls. I started talking to them a bit in Japanese and was excited that I stil remembered enough to say a few basic things: ask them where they lived in Japan, tell the that I studied Japanese in college, that I loved Japan, etc. They were apparently thrilled to meet someone who knew Japanese- they asked to take a photo with me! (so I had someone take one with my camera as well) There is something special about being able to share a moment with people from another culture in a beautiful place that is far away from both of our homelands.

At this point, we were probably all hungry so it was time for a lunch stop. We placed our orders before getting back on the bus so that they were ready once we got to the pub at Millaa Millaa. It was great to be able to stop at a quaint pub that was off the beaten track. Lunch was at our own expense but since it was a local pub, the prices were very reasonable. I chose the chicken nuggets, which had way more fries (chips) than I could possibly eat. There was plenty of free beer included on tap, but I passed on that. Matty encouraged a few people to take shots of tequila, including licking salt off a member of the opposite sex... but again I passed. Really not my thing. Although I admit it was sorta amusing to watch. ;). (he did ask me if I wanted a tequila, and I answered with a very definitive "no"). If anyone is curious- Matty himself did not drink since he was driving.

After lunch, we headed to the dramatic Millaa Millaa Falls, which is apparently where some shampoo commercials had been filmed. It was actually getting rather chilly in the mountains so I decided not to go into the water; quite a few others also stayed ashore.

Next we headed to Josephine Falls which I was most excited to see because it had a stretch of rocks that formed a natural water slide. All the photos of the tour showed people having fun sliding down. I wanted to be a person having fun! Unfortunately, it had started raining and Matty said it would not be safe to swim in the falls. Boo! So we all just walked around admiring the beauty from various angles while Matty prepared an afternoon tea and snack. I may have monopolized the Doritos during this stop ;) I sorta wish there had been water or another cold beverage available.

We were deciding on movies to watch on the 1 hr drive on the way back and somehow ended up with Durango. I really didn't care for it much, so I tried to rest my eyes a bit. Actually, all the driving through the mountains had been making me a little motion sick all day.

The tour returned way earlier than usual due to the weather. When I was dropped off back to my hotel, Matty gave me another big hug and told to watch out for dive instructors, which was one of the many running jokes he'd had going. Umm, I don't think there is any danger of that! (another running theme he had was that cows are evil)

Back in Cairns, I walked around the Esplanade a bit and admired the sunset. Somehow I stumbled on the night market and wandered around there as well; I was excited to find a great gift for a friend of mine. After picking up some reheatable spaghetti bolognese at Woolworths, I headed back to the hotel to shower and eat. I also took advantage of the washer/ drier in my apt to do some laundry.
Another day, another bus tour... this time to the Daintree rainforest region. As soon as I boarded the vehicle, I decided that I had a bit of a crush on a teacher from the Netherlands who was tall and had a hearty laugh. That certainly made the day a tad more pleasant. Why can't I meet tall European men with a passion for travel back home? ;)

After a brief bathroom stop, our first real destination was a cruise in a little boat on the Daintree river. Once again, I'd been feeling a little motion sick on the bus so it felt great to get outside into the fresh air. We were able to munch on tea and biscuits before taking our cruise, although I opted for just the biscuits.

During the cruise, we were looking for crocodiles and we actually found a couple: first a tiny one that I could barely see and then one which was more obvious. There was also a snake, but I never could manage to see it. Spotting animals in the bush is clearly not my strong point. It was incredible to learn that 99% of baby crocodiles never make it to adulthood.

After a brief stop to admire the view at Walu Wugirriga, we went on a walk through the Daintree rainforest. It was quite a nice walk, and our guide was terrific at explaining different things. We were on a boardwalk so it was very easy. And it's obviously kinda cool to be thinking "Wow, I'm in a rainforest!"

We stopped at a place called Lync Haven for lunch. As our guide barbecued our meal, we looked at some of the exhibits inside which included some tiny crocodiles. When we were done eating, we were able to go into an enclosure to feed some kangaroos and wallabies. Since it was free, I decided to have a go at it and it was kinda cool. The people at Lync Haven took our photos for their brochure so who knows who may see me feeding a kangaroo! I was surprised when our tour guide said that Australians view kangaroos similar to how people in the US must view squirrels.

A drive through the Bloomfield Track led us to Emmagen Creek where we all enjoyed a refreshing dip in the fresh, clear water. It was much warmer outside than the previous day, so everyone was eager to enjoy a little swim. But ow, it hurt to walk on the rocks on the way to/from the water! As we dried off, our guide served us some unique fruits and Billy Tea.

Our last major stop was Cape Tribulation beach, which is known as the place where "the Rainforest meets the Reef"- 2 amazing world treasures coming together. Because it was jellyfish season, we couldn't swim in the sea. However, we had some time to walk around and admire the beauty. I'd seen photos of the beach and although small, it's really lovely.

We made 2 stops on the way back to Cairns. The first was to the Daintree Ice Cream company, where we had the option to buy some ice cream. Each day they have different flavors featuring local fruits and for $6, you can buy a cup with the 4 flavors of the day. On the day I went, the flavors were Pineapple, Black Sapote, Wattleseed and Passionfruit. I was a bit hesitant about whether I should try it, but everyone seemed to be enjoying. I asked the cute Dutch guy if it was good and he said it was, so that was enough for me to walk up and buy my own cup. (ok, so I was sorta kinda hoping to maybe share his...). And you know what? It really was quite tasty! Thanks, Dutch Dude, for pointing me in the right direction!

Our final stop was the Rex Lookout off the scenic Captain Cook Highway on which we were traveling back to Cairns. Just a quick stop to stretch our legs and admire the view. Hey, I am all for quick photo op stops!

All in all, I thought it was an excellent tour. Given the distance we had to travel, we fit a lot into the day. We saw and learned about some very interesting places. Our guide was terrific- knowledgeable and personable. And any day that involves animals is cool with me! Of the 3 bus trips I took on my vacation, this felt overall like it was the best- although, to be fair, the previous day's tour had been marred by bad weather.

However, I was still feeling quite motion sick from the drive for the 2nd day in a row. I was getting very concerned because I didn't want my upcoming snorkel excursion to be marred by any queasy feelings. If I was in the US, I'd have hopped over to my local CVS or Walgreens in search of Dramamine. However, since I was in Australia, I started with Woolworths grocery since I had to buy something for dinner anyway. When I asked someone there, he pointed out some pills they sold but suggested I go to the chemist just down the road. The guy at the pharmacy/chemist was very friendly and sold me a package of 10 pills which he said people found to be the most effective. Let me tell you now- those pills were the BOMB!

Once again, I was tired after a full day. And I definitely wanted to be as well rested as possible for my upcoming day of snorkeling.
This was the day for my much anticipated snorkeling excursion to the Great Barrier Reef! After much research and deliberation, I decided on a company that only did snorkeling (most do diving as well) and which was limited to small groups. They ran their ship out of Port Douglas which was an hour away vs. the Cairns port which was a couple blocks away, but I was finally convinced they'd be the best and worth the extra time/ money for transport. The only problem was that by the time I booked, they were full for the day I wanted. Eek! Fortunately, I was able to juggle a few things around and still manage to do everything I wanted.

A shuttle bus picked me up for the ride into Port Douglas. At one of the stops, 2 people that had been on my Daintree tour came on board! Turns out they'd also be taking the same snorkeling excursion as I'd be taking. (not everyone on the shuttle were on the same excursion)

The 3 of us were the last to board our ship; it felt a little chaotic to me because I am used to getting places early. We had to sit down for some briefings or whatnot and then we were off, coasting through azure waters for the nearly 2 hr drive to our first of three sites. I was in a state of awed excitement as I felt extremely lucky to have the opportunity to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I was also thrilled that I'd bought some kickass anti- motion-sickness pills... maybe I'd have been ok anyway, but it was a small boat and I'd been feeling queasy on buses so I believe in the power of the little strawberry flavored pills.

As we got closer to our target site, the crew began distributing masks and fins; we had been provided wetsuits already. I tested my mask... and had a moment of complete, utter panic because of not being able to breathe through my nose! I kept it on for a bit to try to accustom myself to the sensation.

Finally, the ship stopped moving and it was time to get into the water. I was a little nervous because the only time I'd previously snorkeled had been a very long time ago- and it had just been off the beach of a cruise ship's private island. Also the confirmation email I'd received said that this tour was most appropriate for confident swimmers and I'm hardly confident in anything. ;) I know how to swim, and enjoy swimming... but I tend to fatigue.

As everyone took turns going to the edge of the boat and getting into the water, I was one of the last left aboce water. Everyone was supposed to have at least 1 snorkel buddy so I was supposed to swim with 2 other solo travelers who were very friendly.

So we all sat on the edge of the boat, did up our masks, and slid into the water... and then I promptly got the hell back on the boat! Even though I'd taken a noodle to use as a flotation device, I started to panic for some completely illogical reason. I was feeling really light headed as well. I doubt I was doing myself any favors by getting angry at myself for wasting a once in a lifetime opportunity. How disappointing it would be to have paid all that money and gone all that way just to sit in the boat!

The crew were way nice, though I felt like a total idiot since both crew members were staying behind with me. Finally, I felt a little better. The one crew member encouraged me to go into the water without worrying about my mask and to take my time. So I did.

And I thought, ok, this isn't so bad... so I tried the mask. Once I was completely sure that I could float with the water noodle, I was good. Then I put my face into the water. Wow! There was coral and fish and stuff right under me! Coolness! And before you knew it, I was off swimming and taking photos (I have a waterproof case for my portable camera). I didn't think I'd be confident enough to go far from the ship, but it was so easy and natural to be exploring the world beneath the sea that I had no worries.

The adjective "great" is not nearly adequate to describe the barrier reef where I was snorkeling. I felt like I was in a universe that was too fantastic to possibly be real. The coral alone was a feast for the eyes- so many colors and interesting curvatures. And though I didn't see anything rare (some others saw turtles and sharks), it was an absolute treat to be swimming amongst fish of various sizes and colors. Practically anywhere I looked was a kodak moment. (Although it was often difficult to see the viewfinder on my camera.)

Every now and then, I'd lift my head above the water for a dose of reality. But then I'd bury my head in the sea again, and be immersed in a world of technicolor marine life which seemed to be calmly silent against the magnified sound of my own breathing. I was rather bad in that I followed my own whims rather than staying with a group- but I'd often be trying to chase down a fish that I wanted to photograph. Or I'd just feel lost in my own little moments of wonderment.

All too soon, the hour was up and it was time to get back on the ship. But we still had 2 more swims to go. During the 2nd swim, I followed the marine biologist as she showed us some different things. The only downside was that she was very popular and I kept bumping into people.

After our 2nd swim, lunch was available. At other times, there were always snacks and beverages. I have no idea if any other snorkel or dive ships serve fancy lunches, but the food here was simple which was just fine by me; I was there to swim not to dine.

My camera battery died somewhere during our last swim, but it was still just as enjoyable... even though I'd often see something that I wished I could photograph. It was a bittersweet moment when I surrendered my mask and fins as the ship headed back to Port Douglas. I still greedily wanted to explore more of the fantasy world, while at the same time I was deeply appreciative of all that I'd been able to enjoy.

I wanted to buy the cd of the day's photos which included photos of me underwater, but since I had to take the bus back to Cairns, I had to pay extra for them to mail me the cd. Once back at Cairns, I bought something to reheat for dinner and told everyone back home how amazing it was to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. It really was one of the best things I've done in all of my travels.
Although I didn't set my alarm, I still woke up quite early. There must have been something disturbing me in the Cairns hotel as that was the only place where I kept waking up throughout the night. Once I was ready, I walked to the train station which was only 3 blocks away from my centrally located hotel, and purchased a ticket on the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

As you'd expect from its name, the ride up to Kuranda was quite picturesque. In fact, the train stopped once so we could walk onto a viewing platform to take photos of Barron Falls. But even when it was moving, the train was moving slowly enough that it was easy to take photos though the open windows. As we rode, pre-recorded narration told the story of the railway which made the ride even more interesting; the naration also helped to give advanced notice of photo ops.

Once arriving in the town of Kuranda, my main mission was to go to Koala World so I couls be a total tourist and get my photo taken holding a koala. That was awesome- and they even took photos with my camera, too. I walked around to see the other animals, too, although I'd already seen better collections on this trip.

I'd purchased a combination ticket, so I next headed to Bird World, where I marveled at all sorts of colorful birds flying freely around me. The 3rd attraction was a Butterfly Sanctuary; when I entered there, I was amazed at all the delicate little creatures flittering about. I really enjoyed both of these attractions- and obviously, I took many photos of birds and butterflies.

At one point, I stopped for a lunch break and ordered a cheese dog and a berry smoothie. Holy mega hot dog! It looked a little funny to my American sensibilities, but tasted quite yummy. And the smoothie filled my craving for refreshment quite nicely.

There were also a bunch of shops and crafts to purchase around Kuranda, so I spent some time perusing them. They were pleasant enough but I was getting hot and tired. I am pretty sure that in some ancient aboriginal language "Kuranda" means "no air conditioning." ;) It was a rare store that had A/C, so there was no relief from the heat.

Most people take the SkyRail one way between Kuranda and Cairns but with my fear of heights, that was never going to happen, so I took the bus. The bus back from Kuranda was quicker, cheaper, and less interesting than the train ride. I was back in Cairns by around 3pm which gave me ample time to walk around and do some shopping for presents. My first stop was the mall adjacent to the train station. It was indoor and had A/C so it felt like heaven!

I also made sure to stop for ice cream at the New Zealand Natural ice cream stall I'd passed. I'd enjoyed "Hokey Pokey" flavored ice cream at one of their establishments in Singapore so I was eager to have some more. Yum! (it is a butterscotch/ honeycomb flavor)

Back at the hotel early, I worked on my blogs and photos and packed up. I could easily have filled up several more days in the Cairns area. There is so much to do around there... and of course I could have spent several days snorkeling- although I really felt that my 1 day of snorkeling was so wonderful that I wasn't anxious to risk trying another company that might not measure up. At least not right away. I'm sure that if I ever get back to that area of the world, I will have to spend another day snorkeling the reef.
I checked out of my hotel and had them call me a cab that would take me to the airport so I could head to my final stop of this trip, Melbourne. I'd passed the airport a couple times on my excursions so I knew it was close. Once I got there, I checked in at a Jetstar kiosk which never gave me the option to choose a window or an aisle seat; I had to ask them to change it to a window which fortunately they were able to do.

Upon boarding the JetStar plane, the first thing I noticed was all the smoke coming out of the vents. Not exactly very comforting. I guessed it was due to the temperature being so warm outside and they eventually made an announcement to that effect. Still, it was rather disconcerting since I can't recall experiencing that phenonmenon before, and I'm sure I've traveled to some very warm places. Otherwise, I felt quite at home on JetStar because, like US airlines, no free food was served.

After arriving in Melbourne, I was greeted by the most. chaotic. bag. claim. EVER. Half of the belt area was roped off, which resulted in the other half being crowded about 4 deep in people. I felt like I'd showed up to a Disney World parade 5 minutes before it started... except the luggage belt was not nearly as fun or cheery as a parade. I was never so happy to (finally) see my suitcase!

I queued up for the sky bus into the city because I'd read that it was an excellent service for the price. And indeed it got me quickly to Southern Cross rail station. But then I had to wait awhile to transfer to a smaller bus to my hotel; I seemed to be traveling at a slow day/ time.

Upon checking in, I was asked to sign a form that basically said I wouldn't have any loud parties- umm, don't think that will be a problem, LOL! Once again, I was staying in an apartment and it was quite nice. Although I didn't quite understand why it had a dryer but no washing machine. ;). It took awhile for me to get the wifi to work, which was annoying because I wanted to actually do something. Apparently I needed to enter my name in all caps, and I'd tried incorrectly so many times that it locked me out. Ok, then.

Finally, I was free to venture outside; at this point, it was already 4pm so I decided to just walk to Federation Square and to scope out the location of the Regent theatre, where I'd be seeing a show the next day. It may not seem exciting, but I enjoyed the walk- especially seeing the various Christmas decorations. And of course I enjoyed taking random photos along the way. I hadn't really thought out plans for Melbourne, and that really showed in the fact that I didn't really see all that much during my stay. However, I think I sorta needed some time to just relax and kick back after how jam packed my previous week had been.

At Federation Square, I stopped and treated myself to a nice dinner at a little Italian restaurant. I had spaghetti bolognese and blood orange juice. I was tempted by the hot chocolate pudding, but my meal left me too full for dessert.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at the grocery store, mainly to stock my fridge with some beverages. I couldn't believe I had only one more day on vacation... and yet, I was surprisingly ready to get back home. Of course, it's easier to be ready to head home if you know you have another trip coming soon... Which btw is total madness; if I'd been able to plan better, I'd have combined both trips somehow. But I didn't have the luxury- so bring on the insanity! :)
Ah, the luxury of sleeping without setting the alarm! But I still got up at around 9am. My first stop of the day was the nearby Queen Victoria Markets. I didn't buy anything, though, because it seemed to be either the same kind of touristy crap at all the other stores or else not stuff I'd want to buy on vacation. Still, it was neat to walk around.

From there, I headed to Harbour Town which the lady at the front desk had recommended for good shopping. Melbourne actually has a free tram that circles the city, so I boarded that. It was cool that it also provided narration abut sights available at each stop. Harbour Town reminded me that Australia really seems to like inflatable Christmas decorations.

I ended up spending another day doing random walking- this time around the docklands to the south harbour and then back to my hotel. I passed by the aquarium which I'm sure is great, but I was all pffffft about seeing an artificial aquarium so soon after snorkeling the reef.

I ended up stopping for lunch at a small inexpensive Japanese or Asian restaurant. I had some chicken teriyaki udon dish, which was very good.

From past experience, I know that I do better seeing shows on vacation when I take it easy during the day so I headed back to my room in enough time to take a little nap; I was actually feeling really hot and sweaty. Wasn't Melbourne supposed to be cooler than Cairns?

Finally it was time to get up and shower to head out to see the musical "Love Never Dies" which is a sequel to "The Phantom of the Opera". Since I didn't think the latter particularly needed a sequel, I was a little in denial that the show existed. I'd read a few plot summaries when it had first opened in London but I wasn't that familiar with it; I hadn't listened to the cast album or anything. I'd heard that the Melbourne production was considered to be an improvement over the original London production, although not much about the specific reasons as to why that would be the case.

I walked down to the theatre and tried to eat at a cute nearby restaurant but they said they were full. Fine, be that way! I ended up finding another small inexpensive Japanese restaurant which saved me some money. The chicken kastsu don may not have been fancy, but it was perfectly satisfying.

And then it was time to see the show... The following comments are based on notes I took on my iPad before the show, during intermission, and back at the hotel. There are extensive spoilers so consider yourself warned.

As I walked to the theatre, I noticed that the sidewalk was crowded with people in various costumes. Hmm... I realized the show took place in Coney Island... I felt a vague feeling of terror as I wondered if these were freaky dedicated fans who came to the show all dressed up. (For those who haven't had the pleasure, that kind of thing does happen- though usually not in large numbers.) Then I wondered what the hell Harry Potter had to do with Phantom? Finally, I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw that the costumed people were headed next door to the theatre. Phew!

So then I entered the Regent Theatre and was a bit in awe of how beautiful it was. At the same time, my ears felt assaulted by a random cheesy ALW mix CD. I couldn't even escape it in the bathroom, where I could still hear it quite clearly!

As I made myself comfortable on a luxurious pillowed chair in the lobby, I shuddered at the version of "Oh what a circus" that was now playing on the CD. I kept myself calm by reminding myself that in only 2 weeks I'd be seeing "White Christmas" which could cleanse my musical viewing palate. When the background music shifted to "Requiem", I found myself sorta longing for them to bring back "Oh What a Circus" ;). I was thankful when the music shifted to stuff from "Phantom", although I questioned whether that was really such a good idea...

Finally, the auditorium doors opened and I was liberated from the increasingly claustrophobic lobby. One of the first things I noticed was that the seats in front of me had pockets in back. Like on airplanes. I snarkingly wondered if there were barf bags inside... and even more snarkingly wondered if there should be barf bags...

And then the show started. Ah, now it is impossible for me to deny that it exists for I have seen it myself and it is as real as the fish in the sea. So let us take a journey into the world of the Phantom sequel. If you dare...

It starts off with the Phantom onstage singing a solo. It is such a big "I want" song that it seems like an excellent 10 o'clock climatic number. I idly wonder if I've somehow fast forwarded through a bunch of scenes but my watch says it is just after 8pm. Anyway, the Phantom is longing to hear Christine sing again. It's been 10 years. 10. This number is repeated several times.

Now we are taken to Coney Island for a big production number. Hey, aren't those some of the people who were lined up in front of the theatre? Oh, never mind- easy mistake. ;) Holy shit, there is a dwarf running around the stage! No, really. (I feel like I am having bad flashbacks to a certain figure skater's birthing video... This was a female dwarf and it would be totally awesome if she got together with the one from the video). Oh now there's a huge monkey playing the cymbals crossing the stage. Symbolism from Phantom! Except this one is a heckuva lot larger than music box sized.

We eventually see our old friends Meg Giry and her mom, Mme Giry. We also find out that the Phantom is now known as "Mr Y" and he presents "Mr Y's Phantasma" on Coney Island, where Meg is now a featured burlesqueish dancer. Mme Giry helped the Phantom escape via Calais and she is very loyal to him. It is notable that the Phantom is known as the more generic "Mr Y" because it also seems that he has lost a lot of the mysticism and power than made him larger than life in the original show.

Next plot revelation is that Christine is due to come to NY to sing for Oscar Hammerstein. Meg seems to sincerely be looking forward to a reunion with her friend, while Mme Giry looks down at Christine for scorning the Phantom. Mme Giry sees herself as the true ally who helped the Phantom when he was in need!

And now Christine has arrived! Damn she looks good for being 10 yrs older. (as does the Phantom...) Her husband, Raoul is with her of course- and it is without any subtlety whatsoever that we quickly learn that he is a drunken gambler. There is also a son, Gustave, who wants to see Coney Island and to learn to swim. They are met by a horseless carriage, complete with dancing dwarf. I'd never be suspicious about being met by a dancing dwarf. ;)

Now we are in a hotel room with the happy family- or are they happy? We learn that Raoul never wants to play with his son. Fortunately, Raoul is soon lured away by the promise of drinks with Hammerstein. (this is fortunate for the audience, since he was much more likable in the first Phantom, even though he is usually played as very bland). Something about a music box seems to stir something in Christine's memory... even though it does not have a monkey playing the cymbals.

And the Phantom bursts in through the window! And Christine faints! We find out through song that they shared a night of mad passion under a moonless sky 10 yrs ago. But then he left her, and subsequently she thought he was dead. I am wondering when the hell this happened; it would have had to have been after everything in the first show, given that he was supposed to have left her. Clearly I am overanalyzing.

Gustave bursts in, and the Phantom is intrigued by him. But then he gets to the point- he wants Christine to sing for him just once. He kinda lamely threatens that something will happen to Gustave if she doesn't agree. ("lame" in comparison to the "disaster beyond your imagination" stuff in the original)

Raoul eventually returns and shockingly to no one but him, Hammerstein never showed up.

So then we see Meg rehearsing and hoping that the Phantom is watching. This is where Meg and Mme Giry meet up with Christine and Raoul. We learn that Christine will be singing when Meg was supposed to be getting her break, although I think it's just that Christine will overshadow her. This kinda makes no sense as Meg has 10 yrs to get a break, but let's just play along. Somehow, at the end of this scene Raoul finds out that Mr Y is the Phantom and he runs out.

Now we see the Phantom and Gustave bonding; the Phantom is particularly intrigued at how the young boy likes to compose music. So time for a crazy pop production number where the Phantom introduces Gustave to his crazy world- complete with overgrown monkey playing the cymbals! And conehead kids! Gustave is enjoying all the new things (as I am sure I would, too, if I was a 10 yr old kid who had grown up with this version of Raoul as a father). But the Phantom takes it a bit too far and takes off his mask; understandably, this causes the young boy to flee in terror.

Time for some end of act 1 exposition! The Phantom figures out what the audience has figured out awhile ago- namely, that Gustave is his son. Christine confirms this. I sorta wonder how she can be so sure. The Phantom tells her to leave but she says she will sing. Because otherwise we wouldn't have an act 2. The Phantom says everything will go to Gustave who can't know he is the father. Mme Giry emerges from the shadows and wishes that Gustave was never born... She is the one who was loyal all these yrs and worked for the success! Ooh, conflict! And... curtain!

Act 2 opens in a bar; that must mean Raoul is here. And... Yes! We soon learn he is not a happy drunk; rather, he is a feeling-sorry-for-himself drunk. We see that the bartenders are changing shifts and the morning bartender has arrived... Why is this here? And what kind of bar is open 24 hrs? Raoul's song of self pity includes overdone lyrics about how he is wearing a mask, isn't good enough etc. Meg comes in and is sorta feeling sorry for herself too. She tells Raoul to go away with Christine and not let her sing, because otherwise the Phantom will hold power over Christine.

And... Now the bartender is suddenly the Phantom! Ooh maybe that's why they had a shift change? All of a sudden Raoul doesn't seem to be feeling for so sorry for himself as he asserts that Christine belongs with him. Whiplash, much? Raoul says they share a child and of course the Phantom taunts Raoul that the child isn't his- after all, Gustave is musical. The Phantom clearly knows Raoul's weaknesses (as does everyone in the audience since they were not presented with any subtlety) and lures the alcoholic gambler into a bet: if Christine sings, Raoul must go away. If not, the Phantom will make all Raoul's debts disappear.

Meg sings the song she was rehearsing about a bathing beauty who keeps taking off swimsuits to reveal... more swimsuits underneath! She is crushed when mommy says the Phantom was not watching.

Meanwhile, Christine is getting ready, Gustave says she is beautiful. Raoul comes in and she sends Gustave away to watch backstage. Yes, that's right, they send a 10 yr old kid to be on his own in a strange place. Ok, then... Raoul finally persuades Christine not to sing and she tells him to go get Gustave. But then the Phantom comes in and tells her to sing. As if we didn't already think that the plot had a familiar ring, Christine starts singing direct quotes from "Twisted Every Way". There are several musical phrases lifted from the first show which remind me that even though it isn't the best show ever, it is much superior to what is onstage now.

After some more melodramatics that I don't remember, Christine sings. Boy I am shocked. Raoul is on one side and the Phantom on the other. Wait, wasn't Raoul supposed to be getting Gustave? The song Christine sings is "Love Never Dies" Oooh, title song! And she is against a background that makes her look like a peacock. (but not a cool looking albino peacock like I'd seen the previous week...) She still seems torn to me. As if it matters.

After she sings, Raoul is in the mirror singing a goodbye note to the tune of "Little Lotte". Huh, I guess the consistency in music is meant to mask the inconsistency in characterizations? All of a sudden, Christine thinks omg what about Gustave? They think Mme Giry must be behind it and they drag her in. When she doesn't have him, they somehow think Meg must be with him. Mme Giry says Meg wouldn't hurt him which obviously means she would.

And now we see ghat Meg has Gustave at a pier. Gustave is scared because he can't swim. .. remember how he talked about wanting to learn to swim? The Phantom, Christine and Mme Giry come close. The Phantom gets Meg to let him go but Meg has a gun. The Phantom almost gets her calmed down (wait, why no Punjab lasso or something? He is reasoning? How un-Phantomish!) but then mentions Christine which makes her nutso about how it's always Christine. She accidentally shoots and Christine is down! She insists on telling Gustave that the Phantom is hisfather. Gustave runs off. Oh the irony that she is singing that "love never dies" as she is dying.

Gustave somehow brings Raoul back. Huh? And btw where did Mme Giry and Meg go? Does anyone care? Its kumbaya as the Phantom lets Raoul hold Christine. Finally, Gustave goes over to the Phantom, takes off his mask and puts his hand over the deformed face. And... It's over. Was I supposed to feel something? Because I kinda didn't. Everything happened so fast and seemed a bit fake. And, really, it wasn't very satisfying of an ending. Part of the problem is that Meg Giry is just not a convincing villain.

Personally I think it would have been more interesting if Raoul had an affair with Meg. but who knows, maybe 15 yrs from now we'll have a sequel in which Meg has a 10 yr old son with a penchant for gambling ;)

It was fun seeing a show in Australia. The performers were quite talented, and the scenery was interesting. But I still don't know why this show exists. My main problems with the show are that the original was a romance starring a character who had a magical quality to him. The sequel has no romance, the magical qualities are gone, and the plot really doesn't make much sense. I can see where they were trying to go with the final moment, but it wasn't earned. It would have been more meaningful to see young Gustave accept his father's face if that father had actually done something noble- say, if he'd taken the bullet so that Christine could live. I'm sure that there are a hell of a lot of possibilities that would be better than what made it onstage. And, really, this is supposed to be better than the original London version? Yikes.

Afterwards, I walked back to my hotel. It was the equivalent of walking to the train station from some of the further Broadway theaters. Most of the walk was on a street with tons of people so it felt safe enough. One of the buildings I passed was illuminated, seemingly as part of the Christmas celebration.
Another day of packing and heading to the airport. But this time it was for the last time this vacation, for the long trip home via Sydney and Dallas.

I took the SkyBus back to the airport and had plenty of time to walk around before my flight. They served some stupid sandwich on the plane so I decided I'd rather wait to get something at Sydney airport. After wandering through retail and food locations, I eventually settled on some Chicken McNuggets at good ol Mickey D's. After I finished eating, I heard that it was last call for my flight. Whaaaaat? I am usually one of the first on the plane... and there was still plenty of time my departure time. I paused to stop at a store to convert my leftover Aussie dollars into chocolate. :)

I needn't have rushed to the plane, as it was delayed a bit. Someone was in my seat and she insisted that H was the window, but I had the exact same seat as on the way down and I'd paid extra to reserve a seat when I booked so I'd be assured a window. After the little mixup, it turned out that she was really nice; I was sitting with some college students so I was doing my best to act young. Hee.

I had just enough time in Sydney to check my iPad and find out that my favorite skater, Jeremy Abbott, skated really well in an event in Quebec. Go, Jeremy!

For the record, it rocks that Qantas has hot chocolate. This time mine came with a marshmallow, too. There were various intermittent problems with the onboard entertainment system during the early part of my flight, but I had my iPad so it was all good. Although I do like to follow the plane's path on the seatback.

After working on my blogs, I was getting a little bored so I took one of my over the counter sleeping pills which did the trick to knock several hours off the perceived flight time. Soon enough we were served breakfast (even though it wasn't really breakfast time in either timezone of the flight path). The flight overall was fine- though it seemed like it took the flight attendants way too long to come by to remove our dinner/breakfast trays which made me feel quite trapped in my seat.

By the time I got through US immigration, waiting for my luggage (which seemed to take longer than it should have... though not nearly as annoying as in Melbourne), customs, and locating the gate for my connecting fligh, it was just about time to board the final flight of my journey. I signed up for inflight wifi to keep up with the grand prix final skating. Although I was ultimately only able to get an extremely choppy feed of the live streaming video (after trying with 3 different browsers), it was great to be able to follow the live play-by-play and scores.

Upon landing in Philly, I had a little time to kill before my ride so I was in no particular rush. First thing I did in my hometown? Get a slice of delicious sicilian pizza! Yummmm!

It was great to spend some time with my friends and nieces... even if my 14 year old niece did not go out and get us chocolate donuts when we wanted them. ;) Presents were exchanged... and, more importantly, laughs were shared. For the record, the nieces thought that the plot of the Phantom sequel sounded dumb- smart kids!

Finally it was time to go home for the much anticipated reunion with my kittens, aka the furricanes... who were more like purricanes as they snuggled while I slept for a very. long. time.
I expected to Australia to provide me with a rich variety of experiences, and it did not disappoint. From my first exciting glimpse of Sydney Opera House from the airplane... to hikes in the red desert... to snorkeling though the Great Barrier Reef... to attending a big musical spectacle (that was, at least, amusing)... I have so many amazing memories, including experiences that definitely challenged my comfort zone. I particularly enjoyed my various encounters with Australian animals, which culminated in hugging a koala in Kuranda.

As I expected, I enjoyed my time outside of the big cities the most, although that was partly to my disorganized approach to Melbourne (where I didn't have much time, anyway). I would have loved to have stayed longer in the Cairns region and to have been able to take more time with some of the regions which I could only touch briefly on day tours; if I ever return to Australia, I'd definitely consider returning there. I also wish I could have done a few more hikes in Uluru... and that the weather had been more conducive to enjoying the famed sunsets and sunrises. But all in all, I felt that I planned things out the best I could manage with the time I had.

I chose my hotels based strongly on reviews on tripadvisor.com and they didn't disappoint. I'm glad I was able to stay somewhere luxurious for my first stop, Sydney, where I was still getting over jet lag and such. (though jet lag didn't really bother me a ton) All the hotels in Uluru are rather overpriced, but mine was the least expensive and was perfect for my needs- especially since it was right next door to the shopping center. My apartments in Cairns and Melbourne were both excellent values for their modest prices.

Finally, more huge thanks for my mom for a memorable birthday present!